Afghanistan is a mess for the US. This is evident from the way the Afghan question has forced policy makers and American leadership in Washington to switch policy options from sending more troops to Afghanistan to a full-fledged withdrawal. The options are antithetical to each other. If the first option implies enabling the US forces in Afghanistan to get in a better position to ‘defeat the enemy’, the other option unwittingly acknowledges the impossibility of doing so.
But withdrawal itself is not going to be an easy and straightforward process. A simple withdrawal without negotiating peace will push Afghanistan into another era of civil war and blood-shed. Still, the question is: who will the US look to broker negotiations?
The underlying reason for this irresolution, absence of new strategy and a potential way out of the ‘Afghan muck’ is the US failure on two major fronts in Afghanistan. Whereas the Taliban are stronger than ever, the other component of counter-insurgency strategy (COIN) i.e., reconstruction of Afghanistan, has also miserably failed.
Quarterly report of Special Inspector General of Afghanistan (SIGAR), released on July 30, shows the extremely debilitating the state the Afghan polity is. Despite being under the US control for 16 years and despite spending hundreds of billions of dollars on both fronts, success is nowhere to be seen.
The report particularly notes Afghanistan’s inability to make economic gains in this whole era. The report notes, “In the first six months of FY 1396 (which began December 22, 2016), Afghanistan’s domestic revenues declined nearly 25% year-on-year and covered about 40% of total government expenditures. This left a budget gap of $1.1 billion in current dollars, which donor contributions narrowed to $458 million. Donors are expected to finance approximately 62% of the country’s $6.4 billion FY 1396 national budge.”
As such, while donor countries continue to donate to fill the gaps, it is strikingly obvious that Afghanistan does not have its own sources enough in shape to meet its needs, and without donors providing enough sources, its economy would implode from within and leave even more disastrous results for the country than the war itself has caused.
According to a World Bank assessment, “Afghanistan faces dire prospects in its struggle to achieve fiscal sustainability. The long-term fiscal outlook is discouraging, with current analysis by the World Bank showing that Afghanistan will not be able to meet its public spending needs without substantial donor funding for the foreseeable future, even in the best-case scenarios for economic growth.”
In such a scenario, a potential US withdrawal from Afghanistan without paving the way for smooth transition to peace would only wreak havoc in the country, a havoc that could very well spread into Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries, particularly Pakistan.
The situation is bleak despite the fact that the US has spent almost US$120 billion, a figure the said report mentions, on Afghanistan’s reconstruction, yielding no meaningful changes on the ground.
According to some independent reports, one crucial reason for the Taliban’s total control in certain areas is their ability to deal with the people’s everyday problems. This is particularly so in the Pashtun dominated areas where, according to one report, “the Taliban are often seen as a better alternative to corrupt administrators and police. Most turn to the Taliban to settle disputes and avoid paying bribes and payoffs to police and government.”
It is useless to pin hopes on the Afghan security forces to be able to contain the crisis in the wake of such a situation. The report mentions that “45 districts (in 15 provinces) under insurgent control (11 districts) or influence (34 districts). Therefore, 11.1% of the country’s total districts are still under insurgent control or influence, more than a two percentage-point increase from the same period in 2016.”
The Taliban are in control of a lot of territory not merely because of their militant strength but also because of the inability of the (US backed) Afghan government to deliver and fill the long standing political vacuum. According to some independent reports, one crucial reason for the Taliban’s total control in certain areas is their ability to deal with the people’s everyday problems. This is particularly so in the Pashtun dominated areas where, according to one report, “the Taliban are often seen as a better alternative to corrupt administrators and police. Most turn to the Taliban to settle disputes and avoid paying bribes and payoffs to police and government.”
The Taliban are strong and well equipped not simply because of the support and funding they continue to receive from “external sources” to sustain their ‘movement’, but also because corruption within Afghan security forces continues to provide the necessary fuel. According to some local police officials, large scale corruption within the security force has led to massive transfer of weapons and ammunition to the Taliban groups operating in the south and west, and now in north of Afghanistan.
What has added to the element of strength is the fact the Talban’s base of external support has widened. Previously it was only Pakistan, said reportedly Afghanistan’s former minister, Anwarul Haq Ahahdi, now Afghanistan has also to worry about Iran and Russia and China who are gradually increasing their foothold in Afghanistan, and forcing the US out of it.
This increasing involvement of external powers takes us back to the question of what strategy the US should follow to buttress its dominance in Afghanistan, or conversely speaking, to engage these actors to negotiate peace? The pendulum continues to swing between troop increase and withdrawal, defying the making of a new strategy.
Given the ground situation of Afghanistan, the best the US can do and hope to achieve is mitigation of the conflict through negotiations. All of its hopes and previous attempts to design the so-called “winning strategy” have failed. Nothing perhaps can explain this failure than various reports of SIGAR. As a matter of fact, apart from a detailed presentation of facts and figures, a progressive reading of the various reports does indicate the US’ inability to control its own plans and their outcomes.
This is equally true of both the US-backed regime and the forces opposing them. Neither has the US been able to control insurgency nor, for instance, corruption within the government and security forces. Hence, president’s Trump’s frustration over not being able to win the war, which continues to become more and more intractable with everyday passing.
Lack of decision and lack of (exit) strategy is only going to increase this frustration, causing the pendulum to swing in a more awkward manner for the US policy makers. And, in the long run, it is going to make it easy for the US to lose the war.